‘PADDY Island’ was a phrase my late grandmother used to describe a number of the mining villages around Durham.

Born in Penshaw, itself a mining village, grandma came to Durham City as a child and here she grew up, eventually marrying a lad from Esh Winning, who would be my grandfather.

Esh Winning in grandma’s view was, along with Brandon and Sacriston, one of those Paddy Islands where significant sections of the population were of Irish origin.

In fact, grandad was a member of such a community.

Granda Barney came from Esh Winning, but his family roots were across the sea in Catholic Monaghan.

We might think of Liverpool when we talk of Irish ancestry in England, but Irish settlement was also very apparent in the North-East.

Lennon and McCartney may be Irish surnames, but at least one half of the Geordie duo of Ant and Dec – Declan Donnelly – bears an Irish surname, as indeed do many people throughout our region.

It is not unusual to find such Irish family links in Durham, but it is worth exploring why these Irish came.

Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside were important Irish centres, most significant in places like Jarrow, where about a quarter of the 19th century population were Irish.

Similarly, central and north-west Durham, particularly Consett and the villages around Durham, had significant Irish communities.

Here, at least eight per cent of the 19th century population were of Irish origin.

Most Irish settlers arrived in Durham following the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Some came via Liverpool; others via Glasgow or the Cumberland ports. The 1840s, 50s and 60s were a period of rapid industrial development in England, and the failure of the staple Irish potato crop lured many Irish to English industrial regions, such as the North-East.

Only Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and London were more significant than our region in terms of their Irish populations.

Many Irishmen settled in the major towns of our region, finding menial jobs or living by their wits as hawkers.

Others were more fortunate, finding work in factories or shipyards.

Another common occupation was in railway construction.

Irish navigators, or navvies, on the railways were once a familiar sight.

Coal mining is said to have been a major attraction for the Irish in Durham but, in truth, Irishmen had little experience of this work in their homeland.

Early Irish settlers generally avoided pit work and were more likely to be found working in new ironworks at places such as Consett, Witton Park or Tow Law.

Such work was a more attractive proposition and, unlike coal mining, was not dominated by men who were precious of their line of work which often passed from father to son.

As mining expanded and the supply of indigenous miners was stretched to the limit, Irishmen became increasingly involved in colliery work.

However, a glance at records such as the 1881 census show many working at the colliery surface, often in neighbouring coke works.

The term “coke drawer” regularly appears in the occupations of the colliery Irishmen at places like Esh Winning.

Irishmen and women added much colour and character to Durham’s colliery villages.

There is a wonderful description from a 19th century doctor, who noted blackshawled Irish women in Sacriston squatting at doors smoking clay pipes.

We may conjure up a picture of colliery pubs full of Irishmen, perhaps with fiddlers in the corner playing their jigs.

With imagination, we can listen to the craic, or chatter, of these colliery Celts. In some cases, we may have listened but not understood.

Some new arrivals came from the Gaelic west of Ireland and spoke little or no English. It is known that a Gaelic-speaking priest was employed at Sacriston during the 19th century for the benefit of some members of the congregation who flocked to the village’s Catholic church.

Catholic churches sprung up everywhere to serve the Irish communities.

Durham City’s prominent church of St Godric is an example.

Erected in 1864, it served the huge Irish population of the Framwellgate slum.

This particular Irish community probably had more in common with the Irish ghettos in Newcastle and Gateshead than the neighbouring miners’ terraces in Durham’s colliery villages and iron towns. A few Irish miners lived in Framwellgate, but most of the Irish seem to have been hawkers or agricultural labourers.

Drunkeness and outbreaks of violence were probably no more common among the Irish in Durham than among the natives.

There is a record of a riot in Framwellgate in 1865 involving about 50 Irishmen, but it seems to have been little more than a pub brawl that got out of hand.

In fact, there was little animosity towards the Irish in Durham. It is sometimes said that the Irish were brought in as blackleg labour.

However, because of their limited experience in mining, the employment of Irish blacklegs in collieries during strikes was actually quite rare.

The major exception was in 1844, when the Marquess of Londonderry shipped in about 180 workers, without colliery experience, from Irish estates mostly in County Down to work in Durham collieries like Rainton and Pittington.

Few of these Irish employed by Londonderry were inclined to remain in the job and had little impact on breaking the strike.

It is possible that some of these particular Irish were Protestants, but most Irish settlers in Durham were Catholic.

In other parts of the country, Irish arrivals often caused anti-Catholic resentment. In Durham, the local tolerance of Irish Catholics may have had something to with the county’s long-established Catholic links.

A strong Catholic presence existed in the county long before the Irish came.

For example, in Elizabethan times, the area now occupied by Esh Winning was associated with the Catholic martyr John Boste, while nearby Ushaw College had been training Catholic priests since 1808. Many of the trainees would find work serving the new Irish communities in places such as County Durham.

And then there is Brandon, a village that by, happy coincidence, shares its name with an Irish saint.

Perhaps it was features like these that attracted Irishmen like my grandfather’s family to County Durham and made them feel so much at home.